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Western Modernity and Rugged Individualism

Someone posted a picture on a social medium recently, I think it was Twitter, which seemed to me to encapsulate the spirit of Western Modernity, and the ideal of rugged individualism.

A few years ago Hillary Clinton was said to have quoted an African proverb to the effect that it takes a village to raise a child. I have no idea what she was trying to communicate by saying it, or of the context in which she was quoting it. What I was made very aware of was the storm of protest it aroused. God may have said, after making Adam, "It is not good for man to be alone", but clearly Western Civilization disagreed, loudly and vociferously. To a large and vocal segment of American society, the thought of human community was clearly abhorrent.

Western Civilisation since the Enlightenment has fostered this notion that one can be fully human without real human relationships, and those that can make their way without the help of other people are to be admired. The "self-made man" is the ideal, and in the dog-eat-dog Darwinist society of the survival of the fittest, those who don't make it don't deserve to survive.

On another social medium someone noted that conservatives seem to believe that the rich will work hader if we give them more, and the poor will work harder if we give them less. And someone else responded to this "It's a matter of whether you are rewarding contribution or rewarding idleness. Make welfare dependent on working, with exceptions only for those truly incapable of working. ".

On the other hand, I recently finished reading Salman Rushdie's book Midnight's Children, in which the protagonist says:
Who what am I? My answer? I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being in the world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I've gone that would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each 'I', every one of the now six-hundred million plus of us, contains a similar multitude. . I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you'll have to swallow a world.

John Donne, in the Early Modern period, wrote that no man is an island, but in late modernity the prevailing creed is that every man is and ought to be an island. Premodern society was characterised by a belief in human community, and in some ways postmodernity is rediscovering the need for it. But modernity despises it.

For more on this see Individualism, Collectivism and Communitarianism.
60 birthday alexa

Critical Monster Theory

As a result of discussions relating to the topics of the four posts immediately preceding this one, I have discovered that Monster Theory is a thing. Or, to be more exact, Critical Monster Theory is a thing. I asked what what Monster Theory was, and was given a list of very expensive academic books, some of them collections of essays on the topic. But by doing web searches on the names of some of the authors of the articles I was finally led to a site that gave this summary of what Monster Theory is.

The monster, according to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, is an embodiment of ‘difference’—of any quality, whether it’s ideological, cultural, sexual, or racial, that inspires fear and uncertainty in its creators. The monster is frequently a “disturbing hybrid” that defies categorization––its hybridity rebels against nature. And though there are fictional monsters, real people can become monsters too. So, in order to bring “freaks” under control, those who abide by the standard codes of the day ascribe monstrous identities to those who do not. Anxiety is what breeds monsters and defines their existence. By locating the origin of monsters, Cohen strives to reveal our culture’s values and tendencies. This week, please read the attached article -Monster Culture (Seven Theses) by J.J. Cohen, then break down and clarify in your own words what the seven theses are articulating. from Summary of Monster Culture by Yeon Kim.

And from that, and the seven theses of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, I conclude that my Monster Theory differs from that of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, and that it is important to refer to Cohen et al's theory as Critical Monster Theory, because other monster theories are possible, including monster theories that are critical of Critical Monster Theory.

My first criticism is of the statement "in order to bring “freaks” under control, those who abide by the standard codes of the day ascribe monstrous identities to those who do not".

Because I believe that the real monster is the values of "those who abide by the standard codes of the day" and the kind of society they idolise. "Those who abide by the standard codes of the day" see themselves as "mainstream society", and I believe that it is that very "mainsteam society" that is the monster that creates fear and uncertainty (and, as I hope to show later, insecurity).

The next statement is "Anxiety is what breeds monsters and defines their existence." And I would say no, it is the other way round. It is the monsters that create anxiety as much, if not more than, the anxiety that creates monsters.

To see an example of this, there is an article I wrote on Nationalism, Violence and Reconciliation in which I suggested that hatred and violence would only be diminished by reducing fear and insecurity. But it was not fear and insecurity that created monsters, but rather that the monsters, such as Nato, conspired to increase fear and insecurity.

Now this may seem like arguing about which came first, the chicken or the egg, but as far as I can tell from Cohen's seven theses, Critical Monster theorists seem to look at it only from one point of view. They claim that the dominant society in the USA creates monsters. I say the dominant society in the USA is the monster.

I have an interest in this because I've written a few novels that feature monsters, and in one of them, The Enchanted Grove, the monster escapes, as in Cohen's second thesis. The monster in that case is a witch in the form of a green snake (and yes, it is an allusion to C.S. Lewis's novel The Silver Chair), but behind all the lesser monsters in the story was the monster of the apartheid state and its ideology, which eventually (in real life, though not in my story) escaped to Yugoslavia.

And so I agree most strongly with Cohen's second thesis. The monster always escapes. The Brazilian educationist, Paulo Freire, warned us of that in his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, when he said that the oppressed tend to internalise the image of the oppressor. The oppressed feels less than human, and comes to feel that the oppressor is more fully human and so when freed from oppression tends to become in turn an oppressor. The real monster, oppression itself, always escapes, and returns to haunt humanity.

If monsters are created by fear and insecurity, whose fear and insecurity created the dragon slain by St George? It was the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who slew St George, who was trying to create fear and insecurity among Christians, so the Roman state was in fact the monster. But I also agree with what G.B. Caird says about the monstrous Roman state, and for more on that see my other blog post on Mythical Monsters.
60 birthday alexa

Literary tropes, monsters, and "the occult"

I've been having some very weird and confusing discussions on the internet recently, mainly on topics relating to the previous three postings in this journal. and especially these two: Christian responses to zombies and vampires and Tarot cards as a plot generator.

One of the weirdness is about the distinction between "things", and literary tropes about "things". In the context of the recent discussions the "things" have been zombies and Tarot cards. One person who responded (in a Facebook comment) to my post about Christian responses to zombies wrote about "Christian fear of zombies". I found that odd, because in my experience Christians do not fear zombies, and Christians ought not to fear zombies. Zombies are corpses revived by witchcraft, and Christians ought not to fear witches and witchcraft. Of course some Christians have feared witches and witchcraft as in the Great European witchhunt in Early Modern Europe, but that was a heretical aberration -- for more on that see my article on Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery.

But it turned out that what the person meant by "Christian fear of zombies" was not fear of zombies themselves, but fear of zombies as a literary trope in books and films. Perhaps that should have occurred to me, but it didn't, because I was prompted to write my article about Christian respnses to zombies by reading another article on the topic, where the Christian "fear" was only in a very metaphorical sense. It was the "fear" that one of the effects of zombies as a popular literary trope might be to encourage wrong perceptions about the Christian understanding of the resurrection of Jesus Christ -- that it was a kind or resuscitation of a corpse similar to calling for zombies from the grave. Taking a little further, could people whose minds have been shaped by zombies as a literary trope perceive Jesus' raising Lazarus from the tomb as just another instance of a witch calling forth a zombie? In Christian terms, that would be a very serious theological error.

So I might say that "I fear that there is a danger of the popularity of zombies as a literary trope leading to erroneous perceptions of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of Christ." But in a sentence like that I am using the words "fear" and "danger" in a metaphorical sense, and if I speak of "Christian fear of zombies" I am speaking of something entirely different -- it makes me think of Christians fearing that they are themselves in immediate danger of being harmed by zombies.

Can you see the difference?

Yet this seems to be one of the misunderstandings that has resulted from this discussion. And I suspect that the difference relates to different groups of people. Those who see zombies as a "thing" other than a literary trope, and those who don't.

It's therefore easier, in some ways, to think of the question in terms of Tarot cards. Most people, even those who don't think that zombies are a thing, would acknowledge that Tarot cards are a thing. Do Christians fear Tarot cards, whether as a literary devise or the actual cards themselves? It appears that some do.

In one of the posts preceding this one, I mentioned a children's book I had written called The Enchanted Grove. It features Tarot cards and alludes to zombies. The eponymous enchanted grove in the story is composed of trees believed by rural people to be used by witches to summon zombies. And a couple of characters in the story use Tarot cards for divination, which does, however, make the children who are the main characters in the story feel uncomfortable. But some readers felt uncomfortable that they were mentioned at all. But they are pretty central to Charles Williams's novel The Greater Trumps.

There is a Christian writers forum on Facebook, Realm-Makers Consortium, for discussion of writers of fantasy fiction, and I wanted to discuss a suggestion I had seen somewhere online about the use of Tarot cards as a plotting device (see my earlier post here). In less than a day my post was censored and removed, and some of the comments left before it was removed showed that some people were not merely unhappy about including such things in stories, but actually feared the cards themselves, regarding them as "occult" devices and therefore evil in themselves. I believe that verges on superstition. As an Orthodox Christian, I generally agree with the following statement:
The nature and breadth of Orthodox tradition make it difficult to establish where Orthodoxy ends and alternative traditions begin. Nonetheless Church tradition concerning the Devil does observe certain doctrinal essentiae. Instances of radical divergence from such doctrinal positions are considered heresy (airesis) or deisidaimonia, a revealing term usually translated as 'superstition' but literally meaning 'fear of demon(s).' Inordinate fear of demons was precisely the point. One who had accepted Christ should properly disdain demons as vain and ineffectual. In the early Church, anyone who still actively showed awe or concern for demons was arguably not Christian at all, but still swayed by some form of pagan religion (Charles Stewart, Demons and the Devil).
And that is why I think terms like "Christian fear of zombies" are oxymorons.

Tarot cards have been around for several centuries, and contain a lot of Christian symbolism. It was only in the 19th century that occultists tried to hijack them, and redesigned the pack to remove the Christian symbolism -- for more on that see Tarot Twaddle. But I do think that Christians ought to discuss such things, and would welcome such discussions. For the literary aspects of it, and for discussions on Christianity and literature and Christian fantasy writings my preferred forum is the Inklings mailing list, and for the missiologyical, sociological and theological aspects of such things as zombies and witchcraft, the Christianity and Society mailing list.
60 birthday alexa

Christian responses to zombies and vampires

I've just read a blog post on Rising From the Dead: A Christian Response to Zombies. I agree with most of what it says about the Christian responses, but I'm not sure that it adequately describes what zombies are (or are believed to be).

My dictionary (Concise Oxford) says a Zombie is "a corpse said to be revived by witchcraft" (origin unknown).

The Collins Dictionary elaborates on this and says that the word comes from the Kongo language, where "zombi" means a good luck fetish, which seems somewhat inappropriate for what it has come to stand for in English.

But regardless of the origin of the word, the belief that corpses can be revived by witchcraft is common in many different cultures, and there are many variations, depending on the particular culture involved. In certain popular newspapers, zombie stories abound. One of my favourites was a newspaper placard saying "Zombie ate my soap".

Zombies are also a popular topic in fiction, one of the better-known zombie stories being Stehen King's Pet Sematary.

And part of my interest in the topic is that I recently wrote a children's novel, The Enchanted Grove, where the eponymous grove is made up of umdlebe trees (synadenium cupulare), of which Axel-Ivar Berglund (1976:346) writes:
Umdlebe (Synadenium arborescens) is wholly vile and its branches are used by witches in treating a corpse to become umkhovu. Not only is the smell of its flowers said to cause death, but any association with it is proof enough that the person in question is umthakathi (Berglund, Zulu Thought-patterns and Symbolism).
"Umkhovu" is the Zulu word for a zombie, and umthakathi is a witch, so this fits precisely into the Concise Oxford definition.

Umdlebe --  synadenium cupulare

Zombies, however, unlike vampires (that other figure from horror folklore) do not raise themselves from the dead. They are raised by witches. Vampires have volition, zombies do not. Vampires are undead. Zombies are dead but moving.

In my book, though zombies are alluded to by one of the characters, they do not actually appear in the story. I thought the story has enough potential to frighten kids without introducing actual zombies. The eponymous enchanted grove in my story does, however, have the quality of disappearing from one place and reappearing in another, and disorienting those within it so that they feel they are lost, and is used by a witch to draw them into a trap. But in popular folklore a witch has only to tap a grave with an umdlebe branch to bring forth a zombie familiar.

But the point about zombie familiars is that they have no will of their own. They are corpses that are servants of the witch, and under the witch's control. In no way is a zombie anything like the Christian notion of resurrection. It is, as Summer Kinard's article points out, a grotesque caricature of the Christian notion or resurrection.

But consider it also as a missiological problem. When Christian missionaries first went to Zulu-speaking people, and spoke of the gospel, the good news of the resurrection, it didn't sound like good news to them. It sounded like extremely bad news, because in traditional Zulu culture the model of resurrection was the zombie, the umkhova, dragged out of rest in its grave to be a slave.

Summer Kinard's article has the subtitle Toward a Christian response to  zombies, and I think that is exactly right. It takes a few steps towards such a response, but it is not a complete response. Neither is this article of mine a complete response. I'm just saying that a respose to zombies needs to be a bit more nuanced, and to take into account the different roles that zombies play in different cultures.

And if we need a Christian response to zombies, perhaps a Christian response to vampires is even more needed. While zombies have strayed into fiction, they are still rooted in folklore, but in vampires the fiction is the folklore, and when you start seeing fiction with titles like Amish Vampires in Space, it begins to look even more urgently needed.
60 birthday alexa

Evening wolves

No photo description available.

Cush's stones are crying yet
Forth from the wall to Habakkuk,
And from the wood the answering beam
Cries yet of the appointed time
Still tarrying and of old resolves
Of wind, and sand, and evening wolves.
(from "Watt" by Samuel Beckett)

But don't bother trying to find that in the American edition of Watt -- it was censored.

60 birthday alexa

Tarot cards as a plot generator

Someone asked  in an online forum the other day how one could use Tarot cards as a plot generator for writing a story..

When I think of Tarot cards I usually think of Charles Williams and his novel The Greater Trumps, where Tarot cards are central to the plot and I've also used them in some of my own stories as plot devices, but this sounds like something different.

My immediate thought on reading that was to suggest that the person who was asking should read The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch, which is where I first heard of Tarot cards, and because I had no conception of them from the descriptions in the book, I went out and bought some to see what the book was about.

But using them as a plot generator is something else. How would you use them?

I thought one could shuffle them and lay them out in a line then look at the resulting line and see what story line it suggested. You could, like the schoolgirl in Iris Murdoch's book, give the individual cards whatever meanings occurred to you at the time. But most of them suggest the kind of forces and powers that influence our lives -- the Emperor and Empress represent civil authority, the Pope and Popess represent religious authority. and so on. The Kings and Queens of the lesser trumps could represent the civil authority of different countries or cities. The knights represent military power, the suits clubs (staves) and swords could represent militaristic imperialist powers, coins could represent international finance and capitalism and economic power, and so on.

And the Fool, for me at least, represents Christ, or that class of saints, more common in the East than in the West, known as Yurodivy or Fools for Christ -- for more on that, see my article Blessed are the foolish, foolish are the blessed.

One could have branching lines for sub-plots at various points along the main line, and extend the story to all kinds of places.

And nowadays, when everyone and his auntie seems to want design their own Tarot pack, there could be even more variety, though for myself, I prefer the traditional designs, like that of the Fool on the left. Though they are vaguely medieval (perhaps because that was when they were originally designed), there seems to be a timeless and universal quality about them, while most of the idiosyncratic designs seem to be somehow limited and constrained into the designer's point of view.

Some might be concerned that doing this could be a forbidden form of divination, but is it any more divination than a random number generator that starts a computer game? Because, it seems to me, what is being suggested here is a sort of computer game of the mind.
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Idle gossip and the role of social media

I came across this in the book I've just been reading: King Arthur in Legend and History by Richard Barber.

Sir Richard Blackmore, Physician in Ordinary to William III, took up the writing of epics as "an innocent amusement to entertain me in such leisure hours as were usually past away before in Conversation and unprofitable telling and hearing of News." Source: Barber 1973139

And it occurred to me that social media are just new media for "Conversation and unprofitable telling and hearing of News."

The activity is exactly the same; the main difference is that in the time of William III the activity required physical proximity, whereas in our time with the new social media it does not. Whether we are separated by germs or geography, we can still indulge in conversation and the unprofitable telling and hearing of news.

I suppose back then they would have done it in coffee shops and similar places, and we used to do that too until Covid made it more difficult.
60 birthday alexa

Paths of Memory

For the first time in nearly 33 years we have no dogs in our garden.

Our last dog, Pimen, died on Tuesday, but every time we look out of the windows we see memories of him, the the paths he left in the winter-brown grass, paths he will never tread again. And as winter turns to spring the grass will grow again, and the traces that Pimen left during his short sojourn on earth will disappear forever.

There is the track he left from outside the sitting-room window, where he would watch Val working on the computer or reading, to his water bowl for a drink. He used to watch Val most of the day, and if she moved to another room he would go round the house, saying "wuh" until he was satisfied that he had located her. As a border collie, he regarded the family as his sheep, and he took his resposibilities towards his flock seriously (the name Pimen is Greek for "shepherd"). He also herded visitors, and when they left he was worried that we was losing members of his flock.

Several times a day he would patrol around the house, always anticlockwise, like a good Orthodox in procession around the church. And there too he left his parth, and the reminder of his presence, and now absence.

The picture above was taken on the day we got him, 10 May 2015, and introduced him to our other dogs. The one in the picture, Squiffylugs, already had cancer, and we knew she would not live long, so we got Pimen as a companion for Squiffylugs's father Samwise, but he too died a couple of years ago.

Pimen soon made himself at home, and grew up playing with Squiffylugs and Samwise.

And so we remember him while his paths fade.
60 birthday alexa

Manipulated on the Internet

This morning I experienced many ways in which we are manipulated on the Internet, both by people and by the software they produce.

I followed a link from Twitter just now, to an article on what "mystery" means in Christianity. I read the article and wanted to share it because I thought it was worth reading, but when I wanted to share it, the article disappeared and was replaced by the message:
Your Browser Is
No Longer Supported
To view this website and enjoy a better online experience, update your browser for free.

Now I know what happened there.

My computer is quite old, and I use an older version of the Firefox browser because the newer versions are bloatware that need too much memory and cause me to drink too much coffee, because I have an urge to go and make coffee while web pages are loading and everything is busy swapping to disk as the computer tries to make space for all the excess baggage.

I also use an add-on for Firefox called "No Script", which, among other things, stops web sites from automatically playing videos (news sites are especially guilty of this) and wasting bandwidth, and slowing things down still further.

But in this case I was able to read the article and then wanted to see if there was a link button to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook in order to share it. To do that, I had to allow the site to run scripts, so I told NoScript to allow the site. And as soon nas the script ran, it read the version number of my browser and decided not to let me read the article any more. So the software people and the webmasters conspire to say that as a member of the consumer society you haven't fulfilled your consumption quota and you must update, update, update. It's planned obsolescence to force you to consume. But the new brwoser is FREE! they say. We aren't forcing you to buy anything. But I have to buy a new computer to run the bloatware browser.

And I think I'll be able to read the article again if I close my browser and let it run with NoScript, which will hide the version number from the evil gremlin/daemon put there by the webmaster to censor it.

Another example of this manipulation is the popular books site GoodReads. If you are a member of GoodReads, or have read or written a book review there, be aware of this:
Bots are what’s going at Goodreads. Since Goodreads is also used by non-account holders, it is a desirable internet space for advertisers. What happens is that a company or individual will pay for hundreds of positive reviews of their product, so that when a potential buyer sees the reviews, all they see are positive reviews and 5-star ratings. In the case of Goodreads, the product is books. These reviews can be written by a bot or a person with multiple fake accounts.

Read all about it here: Top Reviewers or Bot Reviewers: the Goodreads Bot Problem.

Oh, in if you'd like to read the article on the Christian meaning of mystery, or alternatively that your browser is no longer supported, then go here.

But as for me, I am hearily sick of messages like

  • We value your privacy.

  • Your browser is no longer supported.

... and other such mealy-mouthed nonsense, which are brought up the moment I allow NoScripts to run scripts on a web site.

Another thing I like about NoScript, you see, is that when it is running a little box pops up saying "This site wants to set a cookie" and gives various options, and the one I click most often is "Allow for session", and it's done. Whereas if you run the script it will come up with "We value your privacy" followed by all sorts of hoops to jump through about their privacy policies and cookies. I know much of that is requred by things like EU bureaucratic regulations, buty it's still a pain.

Of course some sites really don't like my browser, which is why I've had to give up my WordPress blogs, and may soon have to give up GoodReads (the book description pages are already unreadable and unclickable), quite apart from the scandal of the bot reviews and manipulation mentioned above. But there is hope. There is a new site, The StoryGraph, which lets you import all your stuff from GoodReads, and best of all, it isn't owned by Amazon.

For trusted sites I use the Maxthon browser, which doesn't run NoScript, but I made the mist6ake of upgrading that, and the new version is also bloatware, and encourages me to drink too much coffee while waiting for web pages to load.

Galloping entropy strikews again.
60 birthday alexa

Retreat from academia: access to libraries.

For the last five years I have written no articles for academic journals, or for other academic publications. I'm supposed to be an editor of an online theological journal, and people sometime ask me why I haven't written any articles for it. Being retired is one excuse, I suppose. I don't have to write anything, just evaluate what other people have written. But the main reason is actually that I have lost access to an academic library, where I can read books and journals and keep up with the field (in my case, missiology)..

As a Unisa pensioner, I used to have access to the library, which is probably the best academic library within reach, mainly owing to an administrative mix-up. Five years ago, when I returned a certain book to the library, they said I had failed to renew it the year before, and so there was a fine amounting to hundreds of rands -- more than the value of the book -- which, as a pensioner, I could not afford to pay. So they said until I paid up, I could not take out any more books, so that was that.

I was pretty sure I had renewed the book, but after a year, I could not remember exactly what had happened. It may have been that the computers were off line, and so I would have filled in a card, but someone forgot to enter it on the system when the computers came back on line. Or perhaps there was a glitch when I tried to renew it online from home through the web site. But, whatever the reason, I had gone a whole year thinking I had renewed the book, but the library system did not recognise the renewal, and did not try to inform me of this until a year later, when the fine had mounted to a huge amount.

So now I'm pretty much restricted to the Alkantrant branch of the City of Tshwane library, which has a quite eclectic collection, but nothing very much up to date. Occasionally one finds some surprisingly useful books there, but no journals, and when the book points to another volume that is not to be found.

So there's no point in trying to write academic articles for journals any more, and I confine myself to writing blog posts, and fiction, though bloggig has become more difficult too, as my WordPress blogs became inaccessible in February 2020, at about the time the Covid epidemic struck, and Blogger has also become more difficult to use since then, and only LiveJournal has become marginally easier. And as for the fiction, no one seems to want to read it, probably because most of it is an old has been telling it like it was in the bad old days of apartheid.